Hampton Viking Grave is Hoax
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Viking Hoax in Hampton
THORVALD THE ROCK LEGEND

For decades Hamptonians were convinced that the brother of the most famous Viking explorer in history had died on their shores. They had his tombstone, after all. How did they know? Well the stone was covered with ancient writing. But experts now say that Thorvald’s Rock is clearly – well – just a rock.

 

 


WISHFUL THINKING IN HAMPTON

Sorry folks, Thorvald's Rock in Hampton is a fake. The famous old rock never marked the grave of Thorvald, brother of the famous Viking explorer Leif Eriksson and son of Erik the Red. For a century local historians and reporters tiptoed around the truth. I'm compelled to be a little bolder -- and simply call a stone a stone.

One good hoax, however, can often tell us more about human nature than a boatload of facts.The rock sits today on the campus of Hampton's Tuck Museum, just across the street from a lot more rocks in Founder's Park. It is encased in a concrete well beneath a row of iron bars to protect the famous stone from pickaxe-wielding tourists in search of a souvenir. Like Plymouth Rock, Thorvald’s Rock is just a stone that, although not part of any real historic event, has become a symbol all the same.

vikingc

The faint gouges on the surface of the stone were once considered Viking runes. Early in the 20th century some "historian" determined that they are letters from the Viking alphabet. That report made its way into a lot of tourist brochures, books and magazine articles. Since then most scholars say the theory that Thorvald was buried near Boar's Head, New Hampshire in 1004 AD is hogwash. Legends, however, attract much more ink while Truth has a lousy press agent.

Scholars almost universally agree that Vikings were the first Europeans to colonize North America, a place they called Vinland. They traveled in open boats with a central blazing fire pit, livestock and dozens of oarsmen through impossible seas. From Russia to Great Britain, past Iceland and Greenland they came. Exactly where in America they landed is the question. Vinland, researchers tell us, was likely Nova Scotia, maybe Quebec and as far south as New York City.

rocksmallEverybody, it seems, wants to get into the Viking act. Claims of Viking artifacts have come from across the United States and as far south as Florida. As a kid growing up in Massachusetts, my cousins and I used to play in a "Viking" cave. At least that's what grown-ups said it was. This underground stone igloo was probably a colonial root cellar, but not to us. Being a Viking, especially for a blonde little kid, was a license to commit mayhem. None of us ever wanted to be Pilgrims.

That's likely how Hampton district court judge Charles A. Lamprey felt when, as a child, he heard stirring tales of brave and ferocious Vikings. The legend of Thorvald especially intrigued him. According to the saga, Thorvald was retracing his brother's discovery of Vinland when he found a stunning rock outcropping that reminded him of the fiords back home. Those rocks, Lamprey reasoned, must be Boar's Head New Hampshire, not far from Hampton Beach. According to the saga, Thorvald and his men came ashore and found three canoes owned by "skerlings" or Native Americans. The Vikings slaughtered eight Indians, then were pursued back to their longboat. In the ensuing sea battle, Thorvald took an arrow in the armpit and, dying, requested to be buried ashore with a cross at his head and a cross at his feet.

vikingbRunic codes On July 4, 1902 Lamprey submitted a piece to the local Hampton newspaper explaining his theory about Thorvald's death site. As proof of his claim, he pointed to markings on an old stone that had been on his family's land since the mid 1600s. The land, now Surfside Park just shy of Boar's Head, was also being considered for development into beach cottages. The colonists had called the amazing stone Witch's Rock and Indian legends reported the stone marked the grave of a white god. No evidence was offered for these legends besides the mysterious markings themselves.

Watch closely now, because this is how local legends are born. Without a shred of proof, other publications picked up the tale of the Hampton judge's Norse Boulder. A developer wanted to build a park around the rock and charge admission to the growing number of Hampton Beach tourists. New housing cropped up on what is now Thorvald Ave., just shy of Viking Road. Seacoast real estate prices began to climb. Hampton's "rock star" got a public relations boost in the mid-Thirties when a group of local citizens decided to do a little amateur excavation. According to local legend as later reported in the Hampton Union, the diggers were about to unearth the boulder. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the rock, "wrenching the tools from the volunteers' hands and causing a general retreat." Nothing enhances a Viking legend like a bolt of lightning.

CONTINUE legend of HAMPTON VIKING



LEGEND OF THORVALD

 

The proposed Viking boulder was featured, along with Hampton "witch" Goody Cole, in the old town's 300th anniversary guide book in 1938. In 1948 a runic expert, Olaf Strandwold, said he could read a message in the rock and listed it among a catalog of Norse artifacts in North America. New Hampshire writer Eva Speare popularized it in her books of Granite State lore.

Adding a touch of authenticity, Yale scholars around this time suddenly came up with a medieval map that appeared to prove that Vikings knew where they were traveling and mapped America. The authenticity of the Vinland Map had been hotly debated for decades and recent signs suggest that is a clever forgery. But for a while, when the Vinland Map was hot news, the Hampton legend seemed unstoppable. If Thorvald was not buried in this tourist town within walking distance of the busy commercial beach boardwalk, he should have been.

History is as much about fame as fact. Write and talk about something a lot and it becomes famous. Write and talk about something famous long enough, and it becomes historic. By the 50's the rock had been moved to make way for a sewer main for a housing site. Now it was an endangered rock. Tourists began chipping off pieces for souvenirs. A Massachusetts man attempted to carry the whole thing away in a truck. In 1973 local amateur archeologists searched for Thorvald's burial remains and came up empty. Finally, in 1989 Thorvald's Rock was moved to the Tuck Museum where it rests in one piece.

Vikings standing around talking about NOT going to Hampton, NH / SeacoastNH.com

Members of the Hampton Historical Society that run the wonderful little museum have begun to soft pedal the Viking story in favor of authentic facts about this amazing old puritan town. Those ancient runes, one critic suggests, may have been made by glacial movement and enhanced by the teeth of a steam shovel, or by the had of a man hoping to raise the value of his waterfront property.

"It's a fake," said Elizabeth Ackroyd, then head of the museum's collections committee told me a few years ago. "You know that don't you? Apparently Mr. Lamprey thought this up on his own. Various people have looked at it since, and you can safely say they did not come away impressed."

Despite the vivid imaginations of Hampton real estate agents and beach promoters, it seems unlikely that Thorvald died on what would become the small strip of New Hampshire seacoast. It seems even less likely that, in the midst of a hostile Indian attack, his crewmen would take the time to carve a farewell message onto a stone. And let's not forget that Boar's Head, scientists estimate, has eroded some 300 feet back from the Atlantic Ocean in the last millennium. Still the nagging question remains -- how far south did those darned Vikings come?

When a 75-foot replica Viking longship ICELANDER visited Portsmouth Harbor a few years ago, I called the event publicist. Magnus Bjarnason, Icelandic Consulate General, was coordinator of the visit. The Icelandic sagas, he said, have proven to be very accurate historical documents. But how far south did they come? – I asked. Deferring the question to a higher authority, Mr. Bjarnason passed on the phone number of Jon Baldvin Hannibalsson, the Icelandic Ambassador to the United States. I placed the call to Washington, DC.

"You want to ask the ambassador if Leif Eriksson's brother is buried in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire?" Mr. Hannibalsson's secretary seemed dubious, but admitted that the ambassador had a fascination with history, and she put me through.

"History is the national past-time in Iceland," the ambassador told me enthusiastically. "Everybody there has a genealogy to the year 1,000 AD and beyond." The surprising response to the touring replica ship, the ambassador said, showed how incredibly popular Viking history has become among Americans. If half the people who requested travel information on Iceland since seeing the ship actually visited the island nation, he noted, there would be no room to accommodate them all. A concurrent Viking exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, he said, attracted a million visitors a month.

I explained about our fake Viking rock in Hampton and noted that Icelanders should take the hoax as a compliment. Thousands of Americans appear to be obsessed by Vikings, we agreed. I tried to pin him down as to how far south he thought the Vikings traveled, but an ambassador is a politician after all.

"You should talk to Pall Bergthorsson," Ambassador Hannibalsson said, and so I found myself dialing the author of the book, "The Vinland Millennium." I reached the 77-year old scientist at his home in Iceland and repeated my theory of the fake Viking grave stone. This whole quest for knowledge, along with my phone bill, was taking on epic proportions. But I was pleased when the scholar agreed with my theory on general principles.

"I cannot see that it is likely that Thorvlad went so far as to Hampton Beach," Bergthorsson said, and I believe he was smiling. He agreed that the carving of a rune stone under the threat of Indian attack was also unlikely. Hastily fashioned wooden crosses, he said, would have been more appropriate burial markers -- and long since washed away. The author says it is unlikely Leif's brother came this far south in such an early voyage -- and he has his own theory of Thorvald's grave site.

Viking Street near Thorvald Ave in beach cottage area of Hampton,NH does not prove existence of Vikings / SeacoastNH.com

"I think I have found this place traveling around in Nova Scotia that matches the saga on the east coast of Cape Breton Island. The saga leads me to this," he said.

Yet there is hope for Hampton. Pall Bergthorsson is convinced that Vikings may have passed by New Hampshire shores in other later voyages, however. A Viking coin from the appropriate era was recovered at nearby Penobscot Bay in Maine. He feels certain that the first millennium explorers found their way to New York City too, landing in Brooklyn. The first American child born of European parents, he believes, was a first millennium Viking girl, not a Pilgrim.

But it's time to put this saga to rest. The only authentic thing named Thorvald in Hampton is a little street off Surfside Park. But do not mourn, brave Seacoast tourists. Hampton may have lost a Viking gravestone, but it has regained a good-sized boulder in the bargain.

 

Copyright © 2005 by J. Dennis Robinson. Al rights reserved. Photos by SeacoastNH.com. Originally posted here in August 2000.

OUTSIDE LINK: Much more from Hampton Library archives

CONTINUE to see MORE ROCK PHOTOS



LEGEND OF THORVALD'S ROCK
(more exclusive photos)

 

Thorvald1

Hampton's Tuck Museum guide Russell Merrill points out the faded markings on Thorvald's Rock. Today the markings are considered not to be an epitaph for a Viking explorer from 1004 AD.

thorvald2

Runic expert Olaf Strandwold saw the following markings on the stone in his interpretation in the 1930s. He believed it said "bui reis stein" or "Bui raised stone." But is the name of a famed Norseman who died in 986. Although unsupported this data appeared in a book on Norse stones in North America and is often quoted as proof of the stone's accuracy. (Courtesy Hampton Historical Society)

thorvald4

Close-up of the imagined runic markings on the Viking Stone found near Boar's Head in Hampton.

thorvald5

Off Viking Street we still find Thorwald Ave., not far from the location of the rock before the development of local real estate in the early 1900s. The rock was moved in 1989.Today scientists believe Thorvale, son of Erik the Red, actually died in Nova Scotia off Cape Breton Island.

Color photos by J. Dennis Robinson / SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved. Additional images courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society..